Kate Grenville, One life: My mother’s story (Review)

Kate Grenville is one of Australia’s best known contemporary writers, and is one of that small band to have succeeded both critically and commercially. Most know her for The secret river, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize among other awards. I enjoyed that, and the other novels of hers that I’ve read, with my favourite being The idea of perfection which won the, then, Orange Prize. I also loved her non-fiction work, Searching for The secret river, about researching for and writing The secret river. I was, consequently, keen to read her latest book, One life: My mother’s story, when I heard it was to be published this year.

Kate Grenville, One lifeGrenville’s mother, Nance, was born in 1912, and died in 2002. Sorting through her mother’s papers later, Grenville discovered multiple notebooks containing her mother’s attempts to write her story. Nance apparently tried different ways of writing it – including, Grenville quotes, trying “to write it backwards”. However, her attempts always petered out, never going past her early forties “perhaps because by then she felt less need to look back and try to understand”. And so, Grenville’s book sticks to that, stopping (except for a short postscript) when Nance was 38 and pregnant with Kate. Wah! How disappointing not to be able to read about Kate’s childhood!

When I first heard of the book, I thought of Meg Stewart’s fascinating Autobiography of my mother, which I read a few decades ago. Stewart is the daughter of artist Margaret Coen and author Douglas Stewart (who, coincidentally, was born in 1913, one year after Nance). They are, however, very different books, not only because these two women led very different lives – one an artist married to a writer, and the other a pharmacist married to a lawyer – but because Stewart wrote her book in first person, as if she were indeed writing her mother’s autobiography, while Grenville opted for the more expected third person approach of a biography.

Given Grenville’s mother was not an artist or famous in any way, and given, as I’ve already said, she doesn’t write about her writer-daughter’s childhood, why is this book worth reading? Grenville, in her prologue, admits that her mother “wasn’t the sort of person biographies are written about” but argues that her story is worth telling because “not many voices like hers are heard. People of her social class – she was the daughter of a rural working class couple who became pub-keepers – hardly ever left any record of what they felt and thought and did.” The result, as Grenville – ever with an eye on history – says, is that “our picture of the past is skewed towards the top lot”. Grenville argues convincingly that the stories of people like her mother are well worth hearing, though I do think the argument has largely already been won. Many contemporary historians (and others, like museum curators) are, as we’ve seen in the books now being published and exhibitions being created, demonstrably interested in the lives of “ordinary people”.

The paradox, though, is that Grenville’s mother’s story is not at all an “ordinary” one. She was born to rather mis-matched parents, Dolly and Bert, whose marriage had been orchestrated, in 1910, by Dolly’s mother. Nance and her two brothers were “dragged” around the state as their parents worked on farms, in pubs, in the city, in country towns. Nance was sent away to a convent school, where she was very unhappy, wanting always to be part of a family. They experienced the Depression, and her parents lost their pub in Tamworth as a result. At the end of her teens, Nance wondered:

what would have happened if her parents had been unadventurous and contented with their lot. She’d have grown up in Gunnedah, left school at fourteen as they had, married a farmer and had six children … Yes, she wanted to meet someone, get married, have children. She wanted to be happy. But she knew now that she wanted something else as well.

What that “now” refers to is completing her first year of pharmacy studies in 1930. It is this, I think, that proves Nance, while never famous, to be no “ordinary” woman – but one who was “part of the world of the future, not the faded past”. So she becomes a pharmacist, and, after a few romantic adventures, some of which also prove her to be not quite “ordinary”, she meets Troskey-ite lawyer Ken Grenville Gee, the man she married and with whom she had three children.

It was not an easy marriage. Nance fell in love with Ken, but she gradually realised that he didn’t love her. He was a fair but remote man. He acknowledged women and respected Nance’s intelligence. He was happy for her to return to work – particularly when they needed the money! – though he, for all his forward thinking in some areas, never gave a thought to the necessary childcare arrangements or to the housework that still needed to be done. It might be a devoted daughter’s bias, but Grenville presents her mother as a loving woman, with a strong mind and a wonderful can-do attitude.

Running through the story of a woman is also the story of a time and place, of Australia in the first half of the twentieth century. Nance, from a working class background, comes to agree with middle-class-but-socialist Ken that ordinary people never have a chance. She realises that

what people called destiny was really the system everyone was part of. The ones on the top of the pile kept everyone thinking they could get ahead, when in fact ordinary people never had a chance.

War and the Depression taught her that. Nance also faces the challenges of being a woman in a patriarchal society. Not only was there the expectation that she would manage the domestic realm while working outside the home, but she was treated with unfairness and disdain when she applied for her pharmacist licence, despite having the required qualifications and paperwork.

I loved all this, but I did find it an odd book to read, and I think this is due to the voice, to the fact that while it’s not an autobiography it is far more intimate than the usual biography. Kate’s knowledge – or understanding – of her mother’s motivations and behaviour is so intense that I found the third person voice disconcerting at times, all the while enjoying the insights. Grenville’s prose is simple, straightforward, but not plain. Imagery is used with restraint, with the focus primarily on the story and Nance’s thoughts and feelings. Here’s an example, a description of Nance, always wanting family, returning home between her first and second year of pharmacy study:

Nance leaned on the windowsill of her old room, looking up at the washed-out green of the hill behind town. There was nothing for her here. Only that failing hotel, the cranky mother, the father muddled up with some other woman. If this had ever been any kind of home for her, it wasn’t one any longer.

One life is a fascinating, engaging book. Grenville’s insights into her parents’ marriage, and particularly her mother’s thinking, reflect the empathy you’d expect from a novelist. How much comes from Nance’s own words, and how much is extrapolation, is not clear, but the book is convincing – on both the psychological level and as a social history. It is well worth reading for both those reasons.

awwchallenge2015Kate Grenville
One life: My mother’s story
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2015
ISBN: 9781922182050

(Review copy courtesy Text Publishing)

Monday musings on Australian literature: The Conversation’s Writing History

This is the post I planned for last week, when Jessica White hijacked me. Like that post, this one too was inspired by another person, this time my historian brother who sent me a link to an article in a new series by The Conversation called Writing History. This series aims to “examine the links, problems and dynamics of writing, recording and recreating history, whether in fiction or non-fiction”. A topic, as regular readers here will know, of interest to me.

I’m not sure how many articles are planned for the series, but here are the five that have been published to date:

I haven’t read them all yet, but I have read the first two, and dipped into another. In the first one, Nelson and de Matos explain that the series draws from essays that were published in a special issue of TEXT, an open-access academic journal. The issue is titled Fictional Histories and Historical Fictions, and its aim is to “get beyond … the often acrimonious exchanges between writers and historians that have been such a characteristic of the History Wars of the last ten years, with its boundary-riding rhetoric.”

The secret River cover

Now, if you are an Australian interested in this subject, you won’t be surprised to hear that both articles I’ve read refer to the conflict between historians and novelists inspired by Kate Grenville’s award-winning, best-selling novel The secret river – or, to be honest, by comments Grenville made about history in relation to her novel. Nelson and de Matos write that the question of who should interpret and write about the past and how the past should be taught or written about has been around for centuries but it was “made palpable” in the tussle over The secret river.

Nelson and de Matos discuss the accessibility of history – and the fact that historians can write accessible history, as proved by writers like Clare Wright in her award-winning The forgotten rebels of Eureka (my review). And they talk about the politicisation of history, referring to comments by politicians like Christopher Pyne bemoaning “the ostensible disappearance of western civilisation from the curriculum” and John Howard’s critiquing of “the black armband view of history”. While political interference is not a good thing, they suggest that in a sense, all history – in its relationship to debates about democracy, identity and social justice – is public history. It makes it even more critical, then, doesn’t it, that we understand what we are talking about and the grounds upon which we are doing it.

In the second article, Tom Griffiths tackles the intertwining of fiction and history. He argues that it was Eleanor Dark, a novelist, who confronted the complacent imperial view of history in Australia’s sesquicentenary, a view that ignored the place of “Aborigines, convicts and women”. She led the way in rethinking our history. Paradoxically, the poet Judith Wright, a few decades later, wrote a history, Cry for the dead, which “gave a secure scholarly foundation to the political campaign of the Aboriginal Treaty committee”. His point is that both writers chose the form that best suited their needs at the time. “Like Eleanor Dark”, he writes, “Judith Wright carefully set about becoming a historian”.

By 1990s, the idea of “frontier conflict” was an accepted part of our historiography but there was a conservative backlash which tried to discredit research by arguing detail such as the number of people who died “as if it decided the ethics of the issue”. It was into this “moral vacuum”, Griffiths writes, that books like Inga Clendinnen’s history Dancing with strangers (2003) and Kate Grenville’s novel The secret river (2005) appeared.

Unfortunately, Grenville’s comments on the value of fiction to history –

The voice of debate might stimulate the brain, the dry voice of ‘facts’ might make us comfortable, even relaxed. It takes the voice of fiction to get the feet walking in a new direction.

– got her involved in the wrong debates, in discussions about history and fiction rather than the topic she wanted, frontier violence. Griffiths suggested this occurred partly because of the timing, because the conservatives were interested, at that time, in debating the “precise, grounded, evidenced truths of history”. To debate on that ground you needed “time, place and specificity”. Grenville, in other words, “found herself at the centre of a debate that goes to the heart of the discipline of history”. I like this explanation. It explains for me some of the reactions to Grenville that never completely made sense, it explains why historians I admired came out so strongly against Grenville, whose story seemed to make a valid contribution to the discussion.

Griffiths concludes that history and fiction are “a tag team” in the study of the past, “sometimes taking turns, sometimes working in tandem”. “History doesn’t own the truth”, he writes, “and fiction doesn’t own the imagination”. We need to understand the distinctions and how they play out, but we shouldn’t see this discussion as “defending territory”.

I look forward to reading the other articles. But for now, I’ll close on a quote my brother also sent me last week. It’s from Jose Saramago’s The Elephant’s Journey (2008):

… that is how it’s set down in history, as an incontrovertible, documented fact, supported by historians and confirmed by the novelist, who must be forgiven for taking certain liberties with names, not only because it is his right to invent, but also because he had to fill in certain gaps so that the sacred coherence of the story was not lost. It must be said that history is always selective, and discriminatory too, selecting from life only what society deems to be historical and scorning the rest, which is precisely where we might find the true explanation of facts, of things, of wretched reality itself. In truth, I say to you, it is better to be a novelist, a fiction writer, a liar.

And so the discussion continues …

Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Patyegarang

This year is Bangarra Dance Theatre’s 25th anniversary. For those of you who don’t know, Bangarra Dance Theatre is an Indigenous Australian contemporary dance company that was established – obviously – in 1989. Its artistic director since 1991 has been Stephen Page. His brother, David Page, does the music. These are two very talented brothers who have had their hands in many significant indigenous arts endeavours besides Bangarra, but today it’s Bangarra I want to talk about! Bangarra is apparently a Wiradjuri word for “to make fire”.

Mr Gums and I have been to many Bangarra shows over the years. They are exciting. We love the way they incorporate indigenous themes and movements into the contemporary dance world. Last year’s show was Blak, which comprised three parts – a men’s story, a women’s story, and then both genders together. It was clever and entertaining. In 2012, we saw Terrain, which was inspired by the changing landscape of Lake Eyre in central Australia.

Two performances we’ve seen, though, have been inspired by historical figures – and have also connected, coincidentally, with Australian literature. In 2008 it was Mathinna, the indigenous Tasmanian girl who was adopted by Governor and Lady Franklin. Richard Flanagan told her story in his novel Wanting, which I read before blogging.  The other is their current show Patyegarang about the young indigenous woman who befriended and trusted first fleet astronomer-timekeeper, Lieutenant Dawes. She trusted him so much that she shared her culture with him, including her people’s language, which Dawes recorded in his diaries. Their story is told in Kate Grenville’s The lieutenant, which I reviewed a couple of years ago.

Stephen Page explains in the program why he chose this story for their 25th anniversary show:

I wanted to take the opportunity to pay homage to the land on which we have gathered and created dance theatre works since 1989 – the Eora nation; the place we call Sydney.


I believe Patyegarang was a young woman of fierce and endearing audacity, and a ‘chosen one’, to speak, within her clan and community. Her tremendous display of trust in Dawes resulted in a gift of cultural knowledge back to her people almost 200 years later …

What he means here is that Dawes’ diaries, which were “rediscovered” by a researcher in the 1970s, have helped current people recover language and culture that had been lost.

Dramaturg Alana Valentine talks of how she translated Page’s vision into a story. She also quotes Richard Green, an elder and cultural adviser for the project, who said that “Dawes was different, he listened”. Valentine continues:

It is an observation that carries invaluable wisdom for how contemporary Australia might continue to honour the contribution Dawes himself made to reconciliation and respect.

There it is again – the message we keep hearing: Listen!

Musician David Page talks of working closely with his brother, nutting out just who Patyegarang was. He said the biggest question for him was “How close was their relationship?”

So, the show. It runs for 70 minutes without interval. My, how hard those dancers worked. As you would expect, it took their relationship from their meeting through getting to learn to trust each other and share their knowledge to when Dawes departs. The scene opens on the beach with the warm glow of dawn. It’s idyllic. The people go about their business, safe, as they usually do. Then a strange man appears and the story progresses. There’s hunting and gathering, smoking ceremonies, the gradual acceptance of Dawes (danced by the non-indigenous Thomas Greenfield) led by Patyegarang (Jasmin Shepherd) while others are less sure – and of course there’s fighting with the red coats. It’s a work that requires concentration and imagination from the audience – and I’m not sure we understood all the references. I suspect this is because while there seemed to be a clear narrative, the program is framed a little more abstractly, focussing on feelings, spirit, values and politics rather than narrative. It’s a work that would benefit from multiple viewings.

The dancing draws closely from traditional moves – at least from those I, as a non-indigenous person, recognise – but is still contemporary. Much of it is low to the ground, earthy, suggesting connection to country. All this is accompanied by lighting that tracks the day and mood; a simple backdrop of cliffs, which at times gave the impression of the ancestors looking on, and a single large rock representing a place of safety, of meeting; and gorgeous costuming that blends with the earth while suggesting lightness and spirit too. There’s one dance by the women – “Maugri (Generic Fish)” – in which tubular costumes enable them to slip from human to sea-creature and back again in fluid, organic moves. The music is dramatic, evocative – including clapping sticks at times, strains of “Botany Bay” at others, and overlays of the language Patyegarang shared and Dawes documented.

Works like this are inspiring on multiple levels, emotionally, intellectually and politically … it would be wonderful if more Australians could (or would) see it.

Kate Grenville, The lieutenant (Review)

Kate Grenville, The lieutenant book cover

Bookcover (Courtesy: Text Publishing)

I first came across William Dawes, the inspiration for Kate Grenville’s The lieutenant, in Inga Clendinnen’s award-winning history, Dancing with strangers (2003). But this is not the only book that Grenville’s novel brought to mind, as it also reminded me of Kim Scott’s That deadman dance. (Intriguing that both these books use a dance motif, but it’s an historically valid one).

However, before I talk more about these connections and their relevance, I should briefly describe the plot. The novel is set during the first years of the white settlement of Australia. (The very fact that I write the “white” settlement says something about how far we have come in the last two centuries, though we still have some way to go). Daniel Rooke, the protagonist, is a young astronomer. He has been chosen for the First Fleet on the recommendation of the Astronomer Royal who believes that a significant comet will appear in the southern hemisphere in late 1788-early 1789. With this role in mind, Rooke manages to largely separate himself from the day-to-day hurly burly of the first year or two of settlement by creating an observatory, of sorts, for himself, on a hill (now called Dawes Point) overlooking Sydney Cove. Here, in his isolation, he is visited by a group of indigenous people, mostly women and children, and develops a particular relationship with the young 12-13 year old girl, Tagaran. They learn each other’s language, which Rooke chronicles in his journals. All this generally reflects the story of William Dawes whose journals Grenville (and Clendinnen) read, but, as Grenville writes in her author’s note:

Although I made use of historical sources, I departed from them in various ways. This is a novel; it should not be mistaken for history.

Meanwhile, back in 2003, Clendinnen wrote of Dawes, bemoaning his earlier-than-wished-for departure from the colony:

His departure cost us access to the local language as it was spoken at the time of contact. It possibly also cost us a brilliant ethnography, although his tender conscience  might not have allowed him to open the people to easier communication, and to more disruptive exploitation.

Grenville does a good job of imagining the Dawes described by Clendinnen as an “introspective, scholarly type” in her characterisation of Daniel Rooke. She introduces him as a socially awkward but sensitive and thoughtful young man who joined the military not for love of war but because it provided the best chance for a poor young man to make a life for himself. From this supposition she develops a credible character whose final actions in the book pretty closely mirror what we know of Dawes.

I will leave Rooke here for a moment, though, to talk a little more about the conjunction between the three books I mentioned in my introductory paragraph. The significant point they all make is what Clendinnen calls “acts of kindness” by the indigenous Australians in the early days of settlement (in the east, in the case of Grenville and Clendinnen, and the west in the case of Scott). All three writers describe a willingness to be generous that was not recognised or accepted by the colonial invaders. Now, I know that here I am speaking of history and fiction in the one breath and I know that, as Grenville wrote, novels should not be mistaken for history. However, modern readers can, I think, glean the truths, regardless of form or genre, if the writers provide the appopriate signposts.

Take The lieutenant. In it, Grenville is still smarting I think from the criticism she received from historians regarding her claims about the historical value of The secret river. The book contains many rather sly allusions to facts, reality and truths. I particularly liked Rooke’s contemplation about the value of his journals in which, as well as documenting the language he was learning, he described his interactions with indigenous Australians, telling stories that actually happened but whose meaning, he discovered, could be distorted. He considers omitting all but the dry documenting of language, but then realises:

Making an expurgated version of the notebooks would kill them. Like a stuffed parrot, they would be real, but not true.

With a little sleight of hand, Grenville uses a fictional character and his fictional journal to talk about the use of historical sources and the telling of stories from them. Do you simply present the “facts” or do you tell a story –  either factual as in history or fictional as in novels – from those facts in which you aim to draw out the truths as best you see them. Am I drawing too long a bow? I don’t think I am.

And so, as you can probably tell, I enjoyed the novel. It suffers from a little earnestness in tone but that doesn’t get too much in the way of a good story about how first contact in the first settlement played out. It’s not the only story about first contact but it is a valid one – and it helps us understand how an all too human inability to walk in the shoes of the other resulted in a catastrophe of major proportions that we are still working through today.

Kate Grenville
The lieutenant
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2008
ISBN: 9781921656767

(Review copy supplied by Text Publishing. An unsolicited review copy received in 2010 so I’m afraid I’ve taken my time to get to it.)

Monday musings on Australian literature: Guest post from Marilyn of Me, You and Books

I first “met” Marilyn earlier this year when she decided to take part in the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012. There aren’t many non-Australians who have signed up for this challenge so Texas-resident Marilyn stood out. She is a retired professor of a small liberal arts school in the USA, where she taught women’s history, black history, US social history, and women’s studies. We started “talking” about the similarities and differences in our respective settler nations, and discovered that we share some interests in the intersection between literature and history. She seemed a perfect person to ask to do a Guest Post for Monday Musings. Luckily for me she said yes … thanks Marilyn! Here is her post:

Writing about Indigenous Peoples: Grenville and Clendinnen

I never set out to become a critic of Australian writers. When I started blogging last January, I joined the Australian Women Writers challenge because I wanted to read more globally. Then I read Anita Heiss’s guest post on Australian Indigenous Women Writers and started reading books by and about Indigenous women. I was hooked.

In the past, as a white scholar, I have researched and taught about African American, Native American, and Hispanic peoples in US history. In Women’s Studies, I also have explored the differences between the stories that women and men typically tell about women. With an African American colleague I researched and wrote about Black Women’s Clubs in Kansas. In my own mind, I have played with questions of how those from the dominant culture can write with authenticity about those our culture has defined as Other. Reading books by and about Australian Aboriginals put me back into those issues.

Kate Grenville and Inga Clendinnen have both written about the original encounter between British settlers and Australian Aboriginals. Both have strong views about how to approach the subject. In 2006, after the publication of Grenville’s The Secret River and in the context of the Australian “History Wars,” the two publicly debated their different viewpoints. Having recently read several books by each, I see their debate as crystallizing the issues for all of us who seek to read and write those who are different from us in essential ways.

Grenville writes as a novelist and Clendinnen as an historian, making some of the differences between their writing predictable. As an historian, I may be biased in favor of Clendinnen. But their initial perspectives on Indigenous people are even more divergent and more critical. Clendinnen speculates equally about the British and the people they found in Australia. Grenville explicitly immerses herself in the characters based on her ancestors and views the Indigenous people as “too different” to attempt to understand.

As many of you know, Grenville is a superb writer, in part because she literally puts herself into the landscapes and characters of her stories. For her Thornhill books, she sailed along the rough Australian coast and stepped into the wilderness just off the path to try and discover how her ancestors would have experienced those places. And she is able to convey what she has experienced to her readers. In part, her method works because people, past and present, share basic human thoughts and feelings. Clendinnen points out, however, that the British whose experiences Grenville seeks to know and describe are really not like those of us who read her novels today. Grenville is able to make people from the past seem real, but she can not know them more accurately than historians, as she may have claimed to do. She later retracted comments which implied that fiction was superior in telling what really happened. It may indeed be better at conveying the feelings, but it cannot prove their reality.

Clendinnen is very aware of the rules that historians agree to follow in their writing. She sometimes chaffs at those rules, describing herself as Gulliver held down by all the little ropes of the Lilliputians. Historians are limited by the “evidence.” They don’t write oral dialogue into their books, and they state the sources of their information, for example. In the end, Clendinnen accepts her identity as an historian. But her discipline is changing as historians, like others, face the implications of shifting understandings of “memory” and “truth.” With some assistance from anthropology, Clendinnen seeks to squeeze out clues to the larger cultural significance of human actions, and she is more willing to speculate than historians have traditionally been willing to do. Looking very carefully at the accounts written by British officials about their first contact with the Australian Aboriginals, she analyzes both groups and the values held by each, revealing both the cultural misunderstandings and the confusion on both sides. She points out how initially both groups were hopeful, even willing to “dance with the strangers.” Gradually, however, each side misread the other and tension between them grew. The British could not conceive of the rituals the Australians were enacting, and the Australians could not grasp why the British lashed and hung members of their own community.

What is unusual here, and in sharp contrast to Grenville’s first and third Thornhill novels, is that Clendinnen explicitly gives the Australian Aboriginals and the British equal treatment. Deeply aware that societies define “truth” differently, she sees both groups as equally human. She explicitly rejects any assumptions that the British accounts are objective rather than filled with their own value judgments. In contrast, Grenville stops at the surface of the Indigenous people, portraying them as if they were objects, not as she treats her fully developed Anglo characters. In doing so, she does recreate her own ancestors’ probable perception of them. However, this approach encourages her readers to go on thinking of Aboriginals as silent and thus less than human.

In The Lieutenant, the second of the Thornhill books, Grenville is able to write with an authenticity and feeling about the Indigenous people not present in the other books. Grenville does a fine job of using history as a starting point for this novel. She uses some of the same source material that Clendinnen used in her historical work, Dancing with Strangers, but she goes in a difference direction. First, she creates the character, Daniel Rooke, the fictional version of William Dawes, who kept the notebooks which Grenville used in researching the novel. She envisions him as a boy and young man with a prodigious mathematical ability but no social skills. When Rooke comes to Australia as the astronomer for the First Fleet, one of task he sets himself is that of learning the language of the people already living there. He realizes that learning individual words, as others are doing, is not enough. He wants to grasp the structure and feel of the language. A bright, young Indigenous girl agrees to help him learn in exchange for his teaching her English. Grenville says she is ten or twelve years old, the age that Rooke remembers his dearly loved sister as being. A delightful exchange develops between the two, not romance but the shared excitement of discovery and learning which Grenville describes wonderfully. In the process, Rooke becomes sharply aware of the native peoples’ humanity and, with joy and pain, of his own. As events unfold, he is forced to realize that these human bonds conflict with his duties as a military officer.

Despite their previous disagreements, Grenville follows Clendinnen’s approach to conceptualizing Indigenous people in The Lieutenant. Her major character is British and his changing thoughts and feelings are the focus of the book. When he gets to Australia and begins to work with the people there to learn their language, however, he is increasingly aware of them as real people, not as the silent shadow figures that appear in her other books. Native and British are equals; in fact he realizes that at times the girl is quicker than he is to figure things out. Perhaps Grenville is capable of doing this in this particular book because she stayed so closely to the actual words written in Lawson’s notebooks. She notes, in something approaching a footnote, that the conversations between Rooke and he young girl were not imagined but taken directly from the notebook. She only creates the feelings and thoughts that might have accompanied those words. Clendinnen and any other historians would be impressed. As I read, I didn’t care whether or not Grenville’s descriptions had actually happened because she stayed so close to what we can know in her imagining.

Grenville shows us in The Lieutenant that an author need not be Indigenous to write authentically about them. Using the notebooks left by William Dawes seems to have helped her achieve this. Sadly, she was not able to do the same thing in her next novel where the documents she used were written by those who did not honor and listen to those unlike themselves. Perhaps listening is the key; listening to documents, listening to voices that are unfamiliar. It is hard work, however, for an author to understand and write from the perspective of the Other. But it can be done, as Grenville shows us in The Lieutenant.

I agree that is easy to expect too much of novelists who write historical fiction. But I believe that the most basic requirement of the genre is that authors not treat any group of characters in their books as empty stereotypes. For years male authors treated women in this way until, finally, women began to introduce women characters that were as fully human as their male ones. Now we seeing fuller and more authentic women in men’s writings as well as women’s. We need to make the same change in how we write about other groups which have been subordinated in the past. That is what it means to move beyond colonization and assumptions of white superiority.

Relevant writings. Links to my reviews and online articles.

Grenville, Kate. The Secret River (2006), The Lieutenant (2008), Sarah Thornhill (2012) and “Unsettling the Settlers.” I tried to obtain her Searching for the Secret River, but no libraries in the US have a copy to loan.

Clendinnen, Inga. Tiger’s Eye (2001), Dancing with Strangers (2005), and her online essay, “The History Question: Who Owns the Past” (2006).

And now Marilyn and I would love to hear your thoughts on the books and/or issues she raises here.